Style is substance in Ghost in the Shell, a super slick and utterly empty live-action gloss on the beloved manga written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow and adapted into Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 classic animated movie. The story revolves around a cyborg assassin whose residual memories and soul—the ghost of the title—make her a deeply conflicted heroine. Oshii’s original film is a sci-fi high-water mark—violent, poetic, baffling and unforgettable. Fans return to it again and again not only for its persuasive world building and sexy protagonist but for its seductive eeriness, philosophical questioning and cyber-inflected existentialism.
This new take, directed by former TV-commercial ace Rupert Sanders (his only previous feature is Snow White and the Huntsman) from a screenplay credited to Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, reportedly cost over $110 million to make. It is more brawny than brainy, more streamlined than twisty, more straight-ahead than otherworldly. It’s a set-up for a franchise—and a dull set-up at that—unraveling in a dystopian Tomorrowland Tokyo with Scarlett Johansson playing the robot fitted with the body of, well, Scarlett Johansson, and the brain of a refugee who drowned in a brutal terrorist attack.
Johansson’s character, called the Major, been trained to become the super elite fighter for a counterterrorism group funded by a soulless cybernetics company called Hanka. Her newest target is a terrorist hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who has put been putting a bull’s-eye on the heads of Hanka’s top scientists. Meanwhile, Hanka’s sinister aim is to control the entire intelligence apparatus of the state itself. Between fights, action sequences and deadly dull exposition, the Major begins to realize there is more to her than a ferocious ability to flip, twirl, scale walls and shoot her opponents like piñatas.
Stripping the source material of nearly all of its warmth and humanity, let alone its Japanese characters (despite setting it in Tokyo), and glossing it over with layers and layers of Hollywood polish, has cost Ghost in the Shell plenty. Despite piles of money thrown at state-of-the-art technological whoop-dee-doo including 3D, this mutation is a shallow, noisy eye-grabber that feels like something we could have been watching over a decade ago. You’d expect this new version to at least deliver some kick and bang from the universe it creates in New Port City—and it does. It’s a vast horrorscape of hologram billboards of smiling geishas, glaring neon and towering skyscrapers. But it all feels like the noir cityscapes we saw back in 1982’s Blade Runner.
Then, of course, there are the highly choreographed spins, twirls, lunges and thrusts, and the variations on slomo gunplay, but that’s stuff we’ve seen already in The Matrix, itself highly influenced by the Wachowskis’ love for Oshii’s original. Otherwise the action scenes, for all their punch and pizzazz, look like pretty much like video games.
The movie’s main assets include Johansson who, with her roles in Lucy, Under the Skin and the Avengers films, has the market pretty much cornered on sexy superhero kick-ass-ness coupled with deadpan robotic stares and Mona Lisa smiles. Despite Johansson’s casting having generated lots of negative chatter about whitewashing, she doesn’t get to do anything near as compelling and dangerous as she does in Under the Skin, a modern classic. This movie even puts a damper on her charisma.
The multitalented Japanese comic-director-painter legend Takeshi “Beat” Kitano as Chief Daisuke Aramaki, the boss of Section 9, dominates the screen with a minimum of effort and almost no dialogue, and a maternal Juliette Binoche handles her glorified cameo with gravity and warmth. And if any movie ever cried out for a touch of warmth, it’s this one. As is the case with so many elements of the movie, the pile-driving music score by Lorne Balfe and Clint Mansell can’t touch Kenji Kawai’s haunting and thrilling score for the 1995 version. The Major has a soul; if only the same could be said for the movie she’s in.